Interview with Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland

26 October 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow started his career writing leaflets for left wing papers and progressed to a PhD  in RMIT’s Creative Media stream that was published as Communism: A Love Story. Madeleine Barwick spoke to him about politics, writing and the future of journalism.

How important is activism to your writing endeavours?

Very much so. The first sort of publishing stuff I did came directly out of the activist stuff that I was doing. The Radical Melbourne books came out of walking tours we did as an activist endeavour to get people interested in labour history. Then I started doing a bit of book reviewing and writing for magazines like Overland on political subjects and political themes on preoccupations I had out of my political background.

Some people would say that journalists shouldn’t be biased. What do you think about this?

I’m not a journalist, or I’m not a reporter. I don’t go out there pounding the beat so it’s not something I have personal experience of. The stuff I write is usually political and explicitly so. I don’t think that the people that read my stuff are under any kind of misapprehension that I’m a neutral observer. I write more of opinion stuff.

In terms of basic reporting, the idea of journalistic neutrality is something very problematic at the best of times. If a journalist is present at the site of an atrocity, should they give equal time to the victims and to the killers? What does that even mean? Should a journalist give the same amount of space to the torturer as a victim?

What do you think of the state of the media and where it’s headed today?

It’s in a terrible state. The whole publishing industry is struggling with the transition to digital media and it particularly affects digital media. All throughout the industry there are tremendous job losses. But underlying this technological problem — the transition from print journalism to digital — is a deeper political and social shift where society is becoming, under several decades of relentless neo-liberalism, more and more fragmented and less and less cohesive.

This kind of atomised population does not absorb news in the same way that the traditional readers of the print newspaper did where, back in the day, each town had one or two newspapers and if you were  a respectable citizen you read these newspaper. It doesn’t work this way anymore and there is great swathes of society that have withdrawn from the public sphere all together. That creates tremendous difficulties for the traditional form of news journalism.

I read your idea for a ‘publicly funded newspaper’ on New Matilda. Could you flesh out this idea a little more?

It’s clear that the traditional model, and traditional business view, of news is going through this major transformation. But this is not a totally new phenomenon. We’ve had to cope with new mediums in the past, specifically radio and television. In both of these cases, there was public funding to provide a certain kind of content. There was an understanding that the potential of these mediums would not be realised, and that they would be swamped by the lowest common denominator of a market-driven news.

I don’t see why the same argument doesn’t apply to print journalism today. With the massive job cuts to more and more newspapers, there simply aren’t the resources for people to do in-depth investigative journalism in the way that they once did. If we think that this is important, then there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be publicly funded.

Since I wrote that, the argument has become more polarised. The BBC provides something like a public newspaper with its very rich content that it has on its website. [James] Murdoch has been campaigning for this to be closed down, as it is in direct competition to his newspaper s in Britain and his attempts to marketise the web. The opposition to a publicly-funded source of news isn’t based on it being ludicrous or inconceivable. It’s because a lot of people have a lot of money invested into the business of making news and they will continue to do so irrespective of what the consequences are to the consumer of news. They’re quite happy to allow the quality of news to get worse and worse because they make money out of doing so.

Is there a journalist/writer you most admire?

There’s an array of people I read and admire their work a great deal. Stylistically I was a big fan of Gore Vidal particularly his essays. I think Matt Taibbi, the American writer,  is very funny. I think his humour and his polemical nature kinda obscures the fact that he breaks quite important  stories, like the Goldman Sachs story. I guess the people who I admire are the ones who are a bit outsider-ish and perhaps not so concerned about the niceties of the inside of journalism.

Finally, what would be your best advice for emerging journalists and writers?

In terms of emerging writers, the best advice is to write, write every day and to make sure it’s something that you work into the fabric of your every day life. It’s really important to have an audience, and to have a sense of who you’re writing for because that answers the question of why you’re writing. It’s very hard to judge the success or failure of your writing unless you know why you’re doing it. Is it because you want to communicate a particular message? Is it because you have a particular aesthetic or preoccupation, such as being a lover of fine prose? Is it because you’re simply doing it to earn a pay check? The answer to all these questions are not always obvious, but the answer to those questions can help you decide what it is you want to do and the steps you want to take to ensure that happens.

Madeleine Barwick is completing her honours thesis in journalist at La Trobe University